KNOXVILLE – With just four days left in his Tennessee career, defensive end Jacques Smith, an Ooltewah native, is facing the reality that his time as an active UT player is coming to an end.
There won’t be a storybook ending – no championship, no bowl appearance and there will be more losses than wins on his career record.
It’s not exactly how the former four-star recruit visualized his four years going in Knoxville.
"Adversity – that is one word,” Smith used to describe his time at UT. “It is not everything I imagined but it is everything that is going to make me a better man. I just can't wait until the future and see what Tennessee football does because we have done a lot of things to change the path even though we have been through a struggle lately. There is a bright future ahead for Tennessee."
A lot has changed for Smith in his athletic career, starting with the sport he plays. He grew up in a basketball family and when middle school started that was the path he went down.
Then peer pressure set in. Most of his friends had joined the football team and they encouraged him to give it a shot. Just a few years later he would be one of the top recruits in the nation as he grew into his 6-foot-2, 200-plus pound frame at Ooltewah High School.
Rated as a top-100 player nationally and the best player in the state by Rivals.com, Smith garnered offers from the likes of Alabama and LSU. He wanted to be a Vol, though, and he pledged to Tennessee early and stuck with his commitment. Even the last-minute defection of former coach Lane Kiffin didn’t sway his decision.
Nearly fours years have passed since that time and Smith has played for two head coaches, three defensive coordinators and four different position coaches. He even spent a year working as an outside linebacker when the Vols made the brief transition to the 3-4 defense in 2012.
Now after all that, he has one more chance to put on the pads and represent UT. It’s not the last game he envisioned, but he’s determined to make sure that his final team isn’t the one that loses eight games for the first time in one season in school history.
“Very imperative that we win [at Kentucky],” said Smith. “If we are the first team with eight losses, that would be a big devastation to me and to the rest of the seniors, so we have to make sure we do whatever to we can to get this win.”
And then what? He’s not ready to think about the next step yet. He’s got just one more piece of business at UT before he thinks about what’s around the corner.
“I’m not sure,” Smith said of his future plans. “I’m focused on Kentucky and finishing the season the right way and helping Coach Jones set a brick for next year.”
• Out: QB Justin Worley, TE Alex Ellis, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, DE Malik Brown, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE A.J. Branisel, WR Marquez North
• Non-contact jersey: S Brian Randolph, WR Drae Bowles, TE/FB, WR Jacob Carter, WR Cody Blanc, RB Justus Pickett, RB Rajion Neal
• Receiver Marquez North, who left the Vandy game on the first possession with an ankle injury, was not in pads on Tuesday during the open portion of practice and was working in the weight room with the injured players. Jason Croom, Pig Howard and Johnathon Johnson were working as the starting wide receivers during practice.
• Former coach Phillip Fulmer was present at the beginning of practice. He and coach Butch Jones spoke for a few minutes as the team was warming up.
• Walk-on defensive back Reggie Juin was simulating Kentucky QB Jalen Whitlow in practice. They’re using Juin to simulate Whitlow’s athleticism, though there is a huge size difference in the two. Juin is just 5-foot-7, 173 pounds, while Whitlow is 6-2, 220 pounds.
• Rainy and cold conditions kept the Vols practicing inside on Tuesday.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga